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Truly Dying with Dignity

November 19, 2014 admin

Written by: Thomas Slawson

On Saturday, November 1st Brittany Maynard swallowed a concoction of medicines prescribed by her doctor and died shortly thereafter. She was twenty-nine.
By now, most people have heard her story. She was diagnosed with a stage IV aggressive brain tumor earlier this year, and doctors said it would take her life in about six months. Learning of Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” law, which allows certain terminally ill patients to receive life-ending medications with the assistance of their doctor, she moved from California to Oregon to die.
Since her passing I have wanted to write down my thoughts from a Christian perspective and have found it extremely difficult to do. Not because there’s nothing to say on the matter, but because, quite honestly, there’s too much say. And not only that, but how it is said is also critical. I could fairly easily rattle off a list of five points as to why assisted suicide is wrong, but the hard part is not sounding like a cold-hearted insensitive jerk while doing so. 
Before Brittany took her own life she had made her intentions publicly known, and this caused quite a stir. Many came out in support of her decision, while others were highly critical. Others compassionately and loving encouraged her to not go through with it. Then it was done. So the question now is, what do we as Christians make of it?
After about five or six separate attempts at writing something, each resulting in me hitting the delete key, I took some time to try and see the issue through the eyes of someone facing a painful terminal illness. In reading about Brittany’s story I remembered that one of the things that initially prompted her decision was watching the movie How to Die in Oregon. I found it on Netflix and watched it. It was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve watched. I won’t take the time here to recap the whole thing, but the movie follows several Oregonians as they plan and carry out their own deaths in the face of terminal illnesses. They spend their last days of “good” health doing their favorite things, visiting friends and family and then, finally, they gather in a room while someone mixes the meds in a glass of water. They say their goodbyes and drink the solution. Within about ten minutes they fall into a coma and die. 
Part of me can totally understand the reason. These people were in pain. They faced the prospect of losing all of their normal everyday functions of life. They didn’t want to face the final, excruciating days of death that their respective diseases would bring, nor did they want their families to have to face it also. And to be honest, I don’t blame them. Given the choice between getting hit by a bus or dying of brain cancer, I’d take the bus just about any day. 
But other than the fact that they were all dying, there was another common thread between them: They believed that at some point their circumstances would no longer have worth or value, and it would be at that point that death would be the best option. 
So why should this matter to believers? Some might even argue, “Why wouldn’t a Christian want to ‘die with dignity’ if he or she is faced with a terminal illness? He or she gets to go to heaven!” But there’s a bigger picture here. For the believer there’s so much more to terminal cancer than simply getting sick and dying. 

Suffering in and of Itself is NOT good.
Let me be clear. Suffering, pain, death, cancer, etc. are NOT good things by themselves. They are bad things. They are not part of the original intention of God’s good creation. They are unnatural, and exist because of the fall that left our world, our lives, and all of creation broken and marred. God’s warning to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:17 was that if they ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree that they would “surely die.” They ate, and since that time all humanity has faced the prospect of death and the suffering that comes with it.

But God sovereignly USES and ordains suffering for good.
Here’s the bigger picture. God is not the source of evil. We live in a sinful world, and the suffering and evil we face is because of the fall. Yet God in his sovereignty is working all things together for good, and to accomplish his purposes (Rom 8:28).
There are numerous stories in Scripture that could be noted here. The evil plots of Joseph’s brothers that led to his enslavement and false imprisonment, ultimately resulted in him being in a place to save his entire family from starvation (Genesis 37–47; see 50:20). But probably the clearest example is that of Christ himself. In Luke 22:3 it records that “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot who was one of the twelve.” The act of betrayal by Judas, as prompted by Satan, resulted in the arrest and crucifixion of Christ. Make no mistake, this was an evil act. Jesus himself prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus was not excited about the prospect of the suffering that awaited him on the cross. Yet it is through this evil and suffering that God accomplished his purpose of salvation through Christ’s shed blood.
There IS real value in suffering.

It is valuable for the one who is suffering.

It has been said before that this life is the only opportunity we have to identify with Christ in his suffering. Our suffering and pain do not save us, but through them we have the opportunity to draw closer to him in the process. John Piper says it well:
Satan’s and God’s designs in our cancer are not the same. Satan designs to destroy our love for Christ. God designs to deepen our love for Christ. Cancer does not win if we die. It wins if we fail to cherish Christ. God’s design is to wean us off the breast of the world and feast us on the sufficiency of Christ. It is meant to help us say and feel, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8) and to know that therefore, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).” John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Cancer, pg. 10.

It is valuable for those around the sufferer.

Suffering can often open doors of opportunity into the lives of others that simply wouldn’t be there otherwise. Brittany Maynard spent her last six months of life fighting for and promoting physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. How much more valuable would it have been for her to use her voice to proclaim the eternally life-changing power of the gospel? 

For the believer, every breath, even those that are heavy, labored and painful, may utter the goodness of Christ to a listening ear. Even when speech or even any physical communication is no longer possible, the very existence of life itself testifies to the amazing work of God’s creation. God will not let the death of one of his saints be wasted.
There is hope.
The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.“ For the believer there is a real hope. A hope of eternal life in Christ. A hope of the New Heavens and the New Earth.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3–4).

Christians may hope in this truth, that there is a day coming when the very effects of the fall will be completely and utterly removed and all of creation will be restored to a state of sinless perfection. 
If you are interested in further reading on this topic, Randy Alcorn and John Piper have also weighed in. Click on the links to read their thoughts.